Posted on | February 20, 2014
Written by | Jim Clarke
More and more Americans are taking their doctor-recommended “apple-a-day” in liquid form. Cider—the you-must-be-21-years-old-to-purchase cider—is growing fast.
Statistics for 2013 aren’t yet available, but in 2012, sales of the top ten cider brands grew by 62.6% according to Impact Databank, continuing a trend that began several years ago—sales of domestic ciders tripled between 2007 and 2012. Established players saw some of that growth, but the biggest change in the past couple years has been the entry of big players from the world of beer: AB-InBev rolled out Stella Artois Cidre, and MillerCoors Tenth and Blake division purchased Crispin, which subsequently doubled its annual volume. Heineken USA’s commitment to the category is clear in the recent makeover for their Strongbow brand, whose point of distinction is usage of both bittersweet and culinary apples in production. On top of repacking the entire line, Strongbow is relaunching Gold Apple with a new, more refreshing recipe, as well as a new flavor, Honey & Apple.
The Boston Beer Company also re-entered the category, retiring the Hardcore Cider brand in favor of Angry Orchard; it went from 40,000 cases in 2011 to 2.2 million the following year, making it the second-largest player in the category after Woodchuck.
Explaining cider to customers can be a challenge, though. “Apples hold such an iconic place in the American psyche,” says Kohn. “There’s a flavor people equate with apples, and it’s hard to get over that.” Alcohol, sweetness, and carbonation can also vary greatly. Technically, cider (which is not necessarily labeled “hard” cider) is fermented juice (typically apple). Althougth a natural first reaction is to compare it to beer, cider is arguably closer to wine in terms of production and end product. Like wine it can range from fruity to earthy to funky, be light-bodied or full, tannic, or sweet, sparkling or still. And appley, but not just like apple juice.
Interestingly, the growth in mass-produced cider hasn’t left more artisanal brands behind. Oregon’s Wandering Aengus has seen sales double each year since 2005. “The big players aren’t a threat,” says their cidermaker, James Kohn. “They’re more of an opportunity. They’re out there marketing the concept.” Nonetheless, he adds, “There’s a huge distinction in market, industrial cider versus artisan cider. It’s engineered, but it’s still apples.” (Or apple concentrate). He notes that an industrial producer can stretch out 2,000 gallons of cider from 1,000 gallons of juice, whereas a craft producer would end up with under 1,000 gallons.
The Queens Kickshaw in New York is a cider destination, with more than 30 on offer; ciders make up 20% of their alcohol sales. Originally they found the bigger brands useful. “Those ciders drew people in,” says co-owner Ben Sandler.But recently: “We saw those cider sales go down; people are ready to move on. Our customers are a lot more savvy.” His menu today is heavy on artisanal ciders both domestic and imported. “I think of [mass-produced ciders] as a completely different category. I don’t think there’s any confusion at all between the two.”
Ultimately, Kohn says, “It really goes to the price point question,” which can be a challenge for retailers stocking cider. “When it’s $15 for a 750 versus $6.99 for a six-pack of Woodchuck, it’s hard for buyers to understand the difference. With a $2 wine versus a $50 wine, they don’t see it the same way. Consumers are asking for it, so we’re trying to educate every part of the sales side.” He cites several trends behind consumer interest: the growth of craft beer culture, locavorism (especially in the Pacific Northwest, home to many domestic cideries); and the demand for gluten-free products.
Cider from Abroad (& Home)
Imported artisanal cider is also growing, and French and Spanish cider is, perhaps not surprisingly, rather wine-like. John and Anthony Belliveau-Flores founded Rowan Imports in 2011 with a portfolio of five ciders from Asturia, Spain; since then they’ve added French and German producers. “It’s the same vocabulary as wine,” says Anthony Belliveau-Flores, “sugar, acidity, tannins, terroir. We really want that conversation rather than, ‘This is cider with this flavor in it.’” France and Spain also have appellation laws for cider, just as they do for wine, specifying varieties, fermentation techniques and the like.
Traditionally, apple varieties suited to cidermaking are tart, tannic and not the sort of fruit you’d want to take a bite out of. But the sudden growth in cider means producers, especially domestically, may be using dessert apples for cidermaking. It’s not an impossible task; Wandering Aengus makes their eponymous ciders from English, pre-Prohibition cider varieties, but their Anthem cider is made from dessert apple varieties, without any doctoring.
Angry Orchard actually went abroad to get the right apples. Cidermaker David Sipes says they source their fruit from Normandy and Brittany in France and Alto Adige in Italy. The Angry Orchard core range includes the more straightforward Crisp and Traditional Ciders; seasonal ciders flavored with ginger, elderflower, or cinnamon, and more complex (and more expensive) farmhouse and ice ciders are in their Cider House Collection.
Cider’s novelty is making barriers to entry for new brands quite manageable. Brotherhood, based in Washingtonville, NY, created a cider division called The Standard Cider Company, with a line-up made from Finger Lakes juice (not concentrate). The first two ciders are the slightly sweet, ginger-tinged True Companion and off-dry sparkling True Believer, both with 7.0 %ABV and selling for SRP $11.99/750ml. The company sold 4,000 cases in the first five months. Soon to come: Pear Flavored Cider, Dry Cider and a Barrel Reserve, plus 500ml bottles aimed at the off-premise.
Gauging Apple Appeal
Compared to craft beer, which skews male, cider’s appeal is less gender-specific. “Our customers seem split evenly, male and female,” says Sipes. As with many newer items, people often try ciders on-premise and then buy them retail.
Forward-thinking bartenders are also using it in cocktails, and food pairing is becoming popular. Artisanal, a cheese-oriented restaurant in New York, recently offered a cheese and cider pairing, for example, and at Queens Kickshaw Sandler says they often pair their ciders with food, especially during Cider Week, when cider becomes 70% of their beverage sales. For Rowan Imports, clientele includes white-tablecloth locations like Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan.
Just like wine, beer, and spirits, cider is a diverse category. In addition to his responsibilities at Wandering Aengus, Kohn tries to bring everybody together at the annual Cider Conference: “It’s a big tent so everybody can be included. It’s sort of like craft beer. Producers see themselves as vastly different, but they’re actually more similar than they are different.”